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April 27, 2010

Joe's Blog

Carpenter + Ortiz = Howard

by Joe Sheehan

I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a rationale for the Phillies' decision to commit $125 million to Ryan Howard's ages 32 through 36 seasons 20 months before a decision point on doing so. The ones I see fall into two categories: soft factors, such as keeping a perceived key player happy, fending off two years of stories about Howard's impending free agency and showing the fan base that the team will keep its most popular players in Philadelphia; and poor player-evaluation skills: using runs batted in as a primary measure of player value, not taking into account the career path of players with Howard's skill set and badly misreading the replaceability of players like him.

No combination of these factors can justify the contract. Howard is a good, not great, player, a mix of obvious skills — his ability to hit for power and against right-handed pitching — and obvious flaws — a contact rate that limits his ability to reach base, middling defensive skills, terrible problems against left-handed pitching. The package makes him an asset as he moves through his prime, and he has been a key contributor to the Phillies' success since 2006. He has never been the best player on his team, and now, he is no better than the third-best Phillie, and could be rated lower depending on what kind of years Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth have. The Phillies have missed badly on Howard, committing maybe 20% of their payroll down the line to a player who will be contributing, at best, 70% of the time at the plate and not at all in the field.

Watching last night's Phillies/Giants game, just hours after the deal was announced, was interesting in that it showed off so much of why this contract happened, and why it shouldn't have. Howard came to the plate four times last night, and every time he came up there were two runners on base. During his second PA, the Giants' broadcast flashed a graphic showing, well, the Phillies' entire scouting report during their negotiations:

Year     2006    2007    2008    2009
HR         58      47      48      45
RBI       149     136     146     141

What was missing was two lines that would have put those numbers into context.

ROB       509     501     483     500
Rank        2       7       8       4

Just as he did last night, Howard has come to the plate with more runners on base than any player alive since the day he joined the league. That $125 million? That's Chase Utley and Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins getting on in front of him, getting into scoring position, making those RBI counts skyrocket. Howard couldn't do anything with those eight baserunners last night, because he wasn't a $125 million player in last night's game. No, with the Giants starting Jonathan Sanchez, this guy:

.307/.406/.656, HR every 10.6 AB, K% 24%

…wasn't in the ballpark. This guy was:

.225/.308/.442, HR every 17.8 AB, K% 35%.

Howard flied to center in the first, drew a five-pitch walk in the third, and struck out swinging in the seventh. He swung five times, missing on three of them. His one solid contact was a deep fly to center on an awful breaking ball, a hanger by Sanchez in the first. We've been over this time and again, and it's worth repeating now that Ryan Howard is set to be one of the five highest-paid players in baseball: Ryan Howard doesn't hit lefties well enough to be an asset against them. He would have been platooned 25 years ago, when teams carried 15 batters. Nowadays, he's just a problem, a .730 OPS guy batting cleanup with more runners on base than any man alive. Not that that's an important job.

Facing Sanchez isn't the problem, though. There are many more right-handed starters than lefty ones, and 75% of the time, Howard is going to be getting three or more cracks against the guys he crushes. He's a ridiculously valuable player against righties, maybe the only player in baseball you'd pick to face one other than Albert Pujols. No, the problem was illustrated later, in the top of the seventh, when with two men on and one man out, Howard had to come to the plate against Jeremy Affeldt. With the Phillies down three runs, they want to be sending $125 million and a .656 career SLG and a homer every ten-and-a-half ABs up…and they can't do that. Howard is too easily neutralized by left-handed relievers to be paid that kind of money. He isn't Barry Bonds. He isn't peak David Ortiz. He isn't Prince Fielder, who handles lefties fairly well and might be the happiest person about this deal outside of Howard's family. Howard certainly isn't Mark Teixeira, who he'll be out-earning by $2 million a season.

Howard doesn't bring a lot of value defensively, either. The weight he's taken off has helped his mobility some, but he remains something shy of smooth around the bag and he's maybe the worst-throwing first baseman since Frank Thomas. There were a couple of similar plays in last night's game that showed his limitations. Andres Torres laid down a drag bunt in the fifth that got past the mound but was a bit too close to first base to be truly effective. Howard charged the ball but was unable to tag Torres diving past him to the bag. The key was in the transition from playing the ball to chasing the runner: a left-handed first baseman should be able to scoop and move, grabbing the ball as he's changing directions. Howard came to almost a full stop, fielding the ball cleanly before moving back to his left. That lack of fluidity is one difference between a good defender and an adequate one. The same action was evident on a grounder by John Bowker later in the game. Howard gets to the ball, comes to a stop, fields it, then continues the play. If he's merely a competent, and at that stilted, defender at 30; it's unlikely he'll be adding value there as he ages.

None of this is really new information, but it was interesting to follow Howard through a game on the night of the deal and see just what the Phillies are getting.

What bothers me most about  the contract, though, isn't any of that. This blog is nominally about the process of me working on my first book, a mix of old work and new, so let me dip into the archives for one of the most prescient statements I've ever made, back in December of 2006 from the winter meetings in Orlando:

Of the other moves that actually happened, the big news was the Cardinals extending Chris Carpenter almost to the teens, reaching agreement on a deal that will pay him $65 million through 2011, with a club option for 2012 worth $12 million.

[…]

Where I question the deal is the timing. Right now, Chris Carpenter is one of the best pitchers in the NL, and as such, is a decent bet to be a good pitcher through 2007, and even 2008. But given his background and the age range we're talking about here, the Cardinals have assumed a lot of risk. They've bought Carpenter's age 34-36 seasons at $17 million per without yet knowing what he's going to be at 32 and 33. Given the attrition rates of pitchers, that's a major risk.

[…]

It's one thing to have to overcommit to a player's probable decline phase in an effort to win a competitive process; that tradeoff is at the core of every single major free-agent signing. To make that overcommitment when it's not necessary to do so, and when you're 400 innings away from the first pitch covered by the new deal? That's just asking for trouble.

I made these same arguments when David Ortiz signed his extension with the Red Sox. Like Carpenter, Ortiz is a key contributor to a championship team and one of the best players in the game. Also similar to the Carpenter contract, Ortiz's deal was reached two years before a possible decision point, with the player likely to be declining when the new contract kicked in. The contract reflected something other than a dispassionate evaluation of the player's on-field contributions and his likely performance going forward.

I didn't like the Ortiz deal, and I have to say that I've changed my mind on the Carpenter deal for the same reasons. In fact, because of the specifics with Carpenter-he's a 32-year-old pitcher with an injury history-I may like it even less that the Ortiz deal. It's hard enough to predict what a pitcher's health and performance will be next year; making a $50 million bet on what it will be three, four and five years out is basically wishcasting.

It's not just that the Phillies have mis-evaluated Howard at a potential cost of tens of millions of dollars and God knows how much potential revenue foregone if the decision ends up costing them on the field. It's that there was no need to do so at this time. The Phillies could have played out Howard's current deal and had a much better idea of what his value is, both in a vacuum and relative to the market, in the winter of 2011. Given how much they're overpaying him — $2 million a year more for the same ages as Mark Teixeira without open-market bidding? — the downside risk there was minimal. Now, they've assumed a huge commitment to what will be a declining asset without having sufficient information about that asset.

I had actually forgotten that I'd mentioned the Ortiz extension in the above piece, but that contract, effectively a $38-million extension for Ortiz's 2008 through 2010 seasons (ages 32 through 34), should have been a huge warning sign for the Phillies. That deal, reached just over four years ago, came at an almost identical point in Ortiz's career as Howard is in his: early in his age-30 season, coming off three huge seasons in which high RBI counts drove high MVP finishes that overstated the player's actual value. Ortiz didn't have Howard's problems against lefties, but he was also a full-time DH. For the next two years, Ortiz was a force of nature; when the extension kicked in, at age 32, he fell off a cliff, and hasn't been anywhere near worth the money in the three seasons of the deal.

Now, the argument is that had Ortiz been a free agent after 2007, he would have done even better for himself, which is at least some of the Phillies' rationale here. They're trying to protect against having to pay even more for a Ryan Howard hitting the market coming off a monster season. Then again, think about where the market went, and has continued to go, for bat-only players. Even two big seasons from Howard wouldn't be likely to get him the kind of contract the Phillies have handed him. The industry understands defense, aging, monodimensional players versus multidimensional ones, replacement level and, most of all, that RBIs aren't value.

Chris Carpenter should have taught teams about unnecessary commitments to risky assets prior to a decision point. David Ortiz should have taught teams about the career paths of bat-only players. Perhaps Ryan Howard will consolidate those lessons in a way that the next generation of GMs learn a bit better than Ruben Amaro Jr. has.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

36 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Scott D. Simon

Joe, thanks for the post.

The David Ortiz and Chris Carpenter contracts are data points that conflict with the theory of Matt Swartz's article, that teams have better ideas about their own players than other teams'.

Overall, though, if Swartz is right, should we give the Phillies the benefit of the doubt?

Apr 27, 2010 12:15 PM
rating: 2
 
sanott

the contract seems strange given the hardball the phillies have played with howard to this point in his career. now you give in and extend him before the current deal you barely wanted to offer in the first place before it expires.

and throw in that you traded cliff lee becasue of salary restraints...double whammy.

Apr 27, 2010 12:18 PM
rating: 1
 
Mountainhawk
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What a contrast. You take Matt's well reasoned, fact based article and compare it to yet another Joe Sheehan rant about Howard being a platoon player, it is obvious why they are emphasizing one and downplaying the other.

Apr 27, 2010 12:33 PM
rating: -17
 
CRP13

No contrast at all. Matt's article uses a lot of economics to show that the Howard deal MIGHT be good IF there's a high inflation rate, and IF Howard manages to slightly improve or remain at the same production level as 2009, both of which are highly questionable IF's. Matt never claims that it IS a good deal, he just outlines the situation in which it MIGHT work.

Joe's coming from the less economic perspective, asking the real question that nobody's answered yet: "Why now?" What was the Phillies' hurry? They have him for two more years already, and there are too many knocks against him (perceived or not) for them to voluntarily commit themselves to an obscene amount of money for a very-good-not-great player.

Apr 27, 2010 12:43 PM
rating: 10
 
Mountainhawk
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I don't know how being among the top 3-5 lefty power hitters in baseball against lefties (go check out HR and slugging against lefties for LHB) has become a knock. It's well established Joe has a hate-on for Howard, why I have no idea, but he can't put together a rational argument ever about the man.

At this point, I'll just bailout. I shouldn't have clicked on this ... one of my NY resolutions was to stop reading articles by Joe.

Apr 27, 2010 12:51 PM
rating: -18
 
gilgamesh

If you think this was a rant, you need to spend more time on the internets.

Apr 27, 2010 13:19 PM
rating: 8
 
CRP13

There's a neat-o feature of this site called "Statistics" that will allow you to look at neat-o things like player rankings by SLG% vs LHP. That particular neat-o feature has Howard being 181st-best hitter when ranked by SLG% (RH and LH if you want to split hairs) vs LHP (100+ PA) in 2009. In simpler terms, that's 43rd-worst.

Howard ranks squarely behind such lefty-mashers as Gerald Laird, Cesar Izturis, and Freddy Sanchez (way up at 94!). Yes I know they aren't all left-handed hitters.

This is my sarcasm-laden way of saying you really need to give up on this whole internet-commenting thing. Maybe that should be your New York resolution.

Apr 27, 2010 13:39 PM
rating: 10
 
Mountainhawk
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You didn't seriously use 1 year for a platoon split, did you?

Apr 27, 2010 14:22 PM
rating: -5
 
CRP13

For his career, Howard is 225/308/442 when hitting against lefties (960 AB). If a player hit like that all the time, he wouldn't make it out of the minor leagues.

I'm not sure why I'm engaging with you, your whole premise is based on Joe being a Howard-hater, and that's just ridiculous. That you have your facts completely wrong only adds insult to ridicule.

Apr 28, 2010 06:39 AM
rating: 6
 
ashitaka

It'd be nice if you provided the stats for your argument rather than just saying "go check" yourself. But I did anyway.

On ESPN you can sort LHB vs. LHP, so I checked where he ranked in ISO in the league each year (min. 100 PA):

2006 - 3rd
2007 - 3rd
2008 - 4th
2009 - 31st

Here are his ISOs from these years:
2006 - .279
2007 - .268
2008 - .227
2009 - .149

So while he may have been one of the top lefty-on-lefty power hitters, that's a steady decline in ISO vs. lefties, and a bad sign.

Apr 27, 2010 15:20 PM
rating: 4
 
misterjohnny
(925)

For what it's worth, Colin Cowherd mentioned Wins Above Replacement this morning in a discussion of Howard's new contract. And he used it in a good way. slowly, the mainstream media is coming around.

Apr 27, 2010 12:49 PM
rating: 2
 
ashitaka

I don't believe you.

Apr 27, 2010 15:21 PM
rating: 4
 
JoshC77

They just did it again this morning on "Mike and Mike"...it was an eerie experience, especially when I hadn't had my first cup of coffee for the day.

Apr 28, 2010 04:25 AM
rating: 1
 
ashitaka

That's pretty awesome. I'm especially surprised about Cowherd. It wasn't long ago he was that guy who would mock OBP and OPS and make some hack "you down with OPP" reference......and then he'd extol the greatness of some quarterback by telling you his QB rating. One time actually thought it was a comedy bit.

Apr 28, 2010 08:54 AM
rating: 0
 
gluckschmerz

Maybe its the Phillie's trying to drive Pujols and Gonzalez to the AL by overpaying for a lesser talent.

Apr 27, 2010 13:02 PM
rating: 4
 
Richie

Matt's article is certainly better, but Joe's isn't a rant. And they're not THAT far apart on the contract. Matt approximately gives it a '4', and Joe a '1' or '2'.

I would like for Joe to show us a Howard-type player who was platooned back in the day of '15-hitter rosters'. Probably only a few very rare occasions where a superb hitting platoon partner just happened to be there already. I think Matt's got that part of it dead-on.

Apr 27, 2010 13:13 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

First one I thought of was Oscar Gamble. Whether there are many more is debatable, but the point is--and this is one area where I part ways with Matt--Howard is a poor hitter against lefties and that weakness is exposed in the highest-leverage spots, exacerbating the flaw. It's not a minor thing, it's the thing that will come up a lot when you need the $25 million version of Ryan Howard and you get Jim Presley.

You can't spin .225/.308/.442, and if I wanted to, it'd be to point out that it's inflated by a big 2006, forever ago.

Apr 27, 2010 13:27 PM
 
Scott D. Simon

Joe, Christina just posted that Howard's career output against lefty starters is .261/.348/.529. Maybe his overall numbers against lefties are much worse, but he's not automatically a .225/.308/.442 because Zach Duke is on the mound.

Apr 27, 2010 13:36 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Per what I said over on my own piece in the comments segment, that number I quoted from B-Ref means a lot less than I made the mistake of believing--it's full-game performance in games started by left-handed persons, not performance against the left-handed persons who started the game. Which doesn't make giving Howard $25 million per year for his mid-30s look any better, but still, E-me.

Apr 27, 2010 14:45 PM
 
Matt Kory

Another comparable is the Travis Hafner extension. Hafner signed his extension in July of '07. At that point they had him locked up through the 2008 season, which is a similar if not exact the same time line to that of the Ortiz and Carpenter contracts.

Apr 27, 2010 13:53 PM
rating: 1
 
DGBL
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it's fairly obvious that Hafner was a roid creation.

Apr 27, 2010 14:40 PM
rating: -20
 
Matt Kory

Well then, do tell DGBL, who else is a roid creation? You know, since you can tell just by looking.

Apr 27, 2010 19:20 PM
rating: 9
 
kmbart
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In Matt Swartz's article, he cites his recent findings about the performance of players re-signed by their own teams versus those signed by new teams, points out the fallacy of the idea that this deal is what, if anything, rules out re-signing Jayson Werth, and introduces an economic argument in presenting various scenarios under which this contract could turn out to be good, fair, or bad.

In Joe Sheehan's blog post, he recites the same tired statistics he's been using to discount Howard's performance for years, uses a one-game sample-size to rate the defense of a player it's long-since been clear he dislikes, and pats himself on the back for being pessimistic about a long-term pitcher contract, something the Phillies have famously avoided.

Like Swartz, I don't necessarily love the contract, but many more factors than, "He isn't a very good on-base guy against lefties," will determine how this contract is eventually judged. If Sabermetrics is, as Bill James said, the "search for objective knowledge about baseball," it seems pretty obvious why one of these two men is now a featured writer for the world's preeminent Sabermetric website, while the other no longer is.

Apr 27, 2010 15:02 PM
rating: -8
 
bflaff1

I disagree with JS pretty strongly on Howard in particular, but we can disagree without resorting to that last sentence, can't we?

Apr 27, 2010 15:31 PM
rating: 5
 
kmbart

I'm not bashing the man as a writer. There's been plenty of stuff he's written that I've found entertaining and I even might check out his book. The point is that, in this case and in so many others towards the end of his tenure as a BP regular, there just wasn't much of anything of substance. Rather, his pieces were too often just re-hashings of his frustrations with the "mistakes" made by decision-makers for the 30 Major League teams.

Apr 27, 2010 15:41 PM
rating: 0
 
antonsirius

Well, I don't want to bash Matt, but the Werth section of that article was by far the weakest. His argument for saying the Phillies will be able to keep Werth basically boils down to "they've upped their payroll the last couple of years, so they'll do it again to keep Werth." The Cliff Lee trade should have established quite clearly that Matt's assumptions on that front might have been a wee bit flawed.

Apr 27, 2010 19:30 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

That's a pretty bad mis-characterization of my Werth section. As I said, the reason I believe it's not a tradeoff is that they are more likely to make money if they spend at the playoff bubble rather than intentionally falling short of it.

As to the Cliff Lee claim, that was clearly not just to save money. They spent far more than his $9MM in salary in subsequent moves after the trade. That trade was about the value they placed on Seattle's prospects, guys that their own Assistant General Manager drafted when he was Assistant General Manager of the Mariners. The Phillies decided on a budget based on what they felt gave them a competitive team, and they chose to trade Lee and spend the money elsewhere because they thought the prospects were worth the difference in between Lee's production and the combination of Blanton's, Durbin's, Contreras' and Baez's production. As I wrote at the time, that was a questionable move, but subsequent actions clearly revealed that it was not just to save the $9MM. Otherwise they wouldn't have spent more than that weeks later.

Apr 27, 2010 20:32 PM
 
bflaff1

If we're going to use 'past as prelude' as our guide, then it's worth noting that a) the payroll *has* been growing by leaps and bounds, and b) pretty much every assumption about what the Phillies FO will do has been wrong lately, including, obviously, the one where the Phillies would let Howard walk before he entered his Mo Vaughn phase. So I wouldn't be surprised if Werth stuck around for another 3-4 years. He's a right-handed hitting stud in a lineup that wouldn't have one otherwise. He'd be hard to replace.

Apr 27, 2010 20:33 PM
rating: 0
 
TheBunk

Well...that's about as rude as it comes.

Apr 28, 2010 09:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Nathan

I think this article makes a good case and asks the crucial question "why now?" However, I think it would be great to also have a scouting perspective on the comparison between Howard and Ortiz. It may be that Howard's physical prowess is viewed by the Phillies as more likely to last than that of some statistically comparable players. I present this not as a criticism of this article, but as a possible caveat that could be explored in further work.

Apr 27, 2010 23:15 PM
rating: 1
 
mafrth77

Ortiz's extension was a 4 year 52 mil extension. while the number is higher- it also covers his 2007 year when he was an 8-9 win player. That extension was much more valuable to the Red sox than Joe is making ot out to be, and I dont know why he is excluding 2007 from his numbers.

Apr 28, 2010 07:51 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Because the Red Sox already held an option on Ortiz for 2007. That they replaced it with a guaranteed year doesn't change that the "extension" was 2008-10. They already had his services locked up for '07.

Apr 28, 2010 09:05 AM
 
mafrth77

Your right. I forgot about that. His contract really hasn't hurt them financially,though at least until this year. There was also some real opportunity costs there though. they had Carlos Pena on the team in 2006 and they had no where to put him.

Apr 28, 2010 11:39 AM
rating: 0
 
keef66

Part of Joe's argument is that Ortiz was already signed for 2007 at a substantially lower price. That's why he excludes that season.

Apr 28, 2010 09:17 AM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

Which is worse, signing premium talents to extensions (like the Cardinals did with Carpenter), or signing proven mediocrities to multi-year, generous contracts, (like the Cardinals did with Lohse, Franklin, Encarnacion, Kennedy, etc.?)

In short, is the Carpenter deal worse than the Lohse deal? Is Howard at $25 million a worse deal than John Olerud at $7 million? On the one hand, Olerud isn't costing you $25 million. On the other hand, for $7 million he isn't helping the team any.

Apr 28, 2010 09:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Hoff

Good to see the Howard hater in chief chime in against the new philly phriendly voices at bp.

Fun fact: R. Amaro in an interview yesterday called Jimmy Rollins "Maybe the best shortstop in NL, arguably one of the best shortstops in baseball".

Something tells me their "inside knowledge" isn't all its cracked up to be.

May 01, 2010 06:00 AM
rating: 0
 
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